For the power of enforcement

Print edition : September 01, 2001
Interview with Justice P.B. Sawant.

The six-year tenure of Justice P.B. Sawant as Chairman of the Press Council of India was eventful. A retired Judge of the Supreme Court, Sawant had critics who, in his own words, had not even bothered to read the Press Council's adjudications and findings. On his last day in office, shortly after the release of the Press Council's report on the future of the print media, Sawant spoke to S.K. Pande in his characteristic forthright style. Excerpts from the interview:

M. LAKSHMANAN

The Press Council report calls for a Third Press Commission. Why should there not be a commission that would look into the media as a whole?

It is only after the Second Press Commission that the need to look at the entire media has been felt. We could certainly have a media commission but such a recommendation from the Press Council would have been considered a matter beyond our brief. Therefore, we recommended a Third Press Commission. Surely, nearly two decades after the Second Press Commission, with the emergence of a global market and the media being in a state of flux, a third commission is a must. We have given detailed suggestions in this respect.

You have suggested the creation of cooperatives of journalists. But today such experiments are rare and floundering.

We have suggested not only cooperatives but also companies run by journalists. Even neighbourhood and community newspapers have cropped up. We made these suggestions with the intention of giving some more security and independence to journalists. Some experiments abroad have succeeded.

Could you give some examples?

There are cooperatives such as the Janamorcha of Faizabad. I have heard of two enterprising weekly journals being run on an experimental basis in Chennai; they even pay wages recommended by the Wage Board. Then there are trusts like the Tribune Trust in Chandigarh. The Statesman was a model once. Abroad, you have the examples of Le Monde and Enclaire in France; there are two in the United States, one in Japan and one even in Croatia.

What is your opinion on creating a media council? There are suggestions that the print and electronic media should have separate councils.

There should be one well-structured media council. You can't divide the media artificially. Both (print and electronic media) cover news and both are concerned with ethics. What will happen if contrary adjudications are given by two councils? It would lead to chaos. The doubts of some persons (about a media council) are misconceived; 17 countries have media councils now. Perhaps more ground could have been covered before the idea was floated. I don't agree with the view that the council should be composed of and headed by journalists. How can journalists be both the prosecutors and the judges at once?

How would you sum up the achievements of the Press Council in your tenure?

We have been able to make the Press Council better known both among the people and among journalists. More people are now aware that there is such an institution, which takes cognisance not only of violation of professional ethics but also of attacks on the press by the authorities, anti-social groups, and so on.

We tried to adjudicate on merits irrespective of the size of the newspaper involved. But in some cases where big papers were involved, the decisions generated some controversy and even led to adverse comments against the Press Council and its Chairman. At one stage, I even had to tell international bodies of journalists not to preach to us.

You have asked for more powers for the Council?

It had to be done, for our adjudications were not carried out by some big guns who were hurt by our judgments. Our proposal was concrete: give us powers at least to ensure that our adjudications are carried out by papers against whom strictures are passed. However, it was a limited proposal: to give us power to initiate contempt proceedings. Just as there is contempt of court there should be contempt of the Council too. The proposal has been pending before the government for quite some time.

The latest report of the Press Council has generated some controversy and there is a note of dissent.

We have brought out a report on the future of the print media after some study, which can be useful. Disagreements are bound to be there and the note of dissent is recorded. The dissent is on a burning issue affecting journalists, that is, contract labour in the media. We have touched on the subject. Perhaps they feel more strongly about it. We have even referred to the devaluation of the office of the Editor and the sense of insecurity among journalists. We have touched on the questions of providing insurance cover for journalists and the indecent portrayal of women in the media.

What about small newspapers?

We attach great importance to them. We have given suggestions on how to help small newspapers with advertisements, etc. In fact, a committee went into it.

Ironically, at a time when the press is characterised by razzle-dazzle there is a heightened sense of insecurity among journalists.

That is why we have suggested various forms of newspapers existing side by side. But contract employment is an inevitable result of the market economy accepted by the government in all fields. And this economy means making profits by any means, including the reduction of costs.

Is the structure of the Press Council all right?

Generally yes. Last time we found that people who were not entitled to get in managed to do so and we got them out. I would agree that the draw of lots is not the best method (to choose its members if there is no unanimity).

Would you say that the best persons generally get in?

I would not say the best get in. But generally, experienced people do get in.

How do you perceive the current media situation?

I see two trends in the print medium. First, the trend that is characterised by the belief that media have an obligation to society and have to inform and educate. Secondly, there is a trend in which the media are seen as business - and purely business considerations prevail. This is spoiling the atmosphere. There is media monopoly at the national and international levels. You have the Murdochs, Turners and Warners and their local versions... I oppose the entry of foreign media into India. Those who lobby for it want to be passive entrepreneurs, making profits without exerting themselves. Some journalists too hope to gain from what some press barons are trying for. But it will hardly help them.

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